The Busy Person’s Guide to Becoming a Fitness Minimalist

Kettlebell Swing
Photo: Pond5

Imagine a workout that can be done anywhere, anytime. This routine doesn’t require any equipment. There’s no instructor and no membership dues. Better still, completing this workout wouldn’t take all day. Heck, it wouldn’t even take up an entire lunch break.

What if this workout existed?

Well, it does. Call it the Rise of the Fitness Minimalist, or the realization that short, high-intensity workouts (even just seven minutes in length) might be better than slogging through longer exercise sessions. In fact, research shows that 20 to 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training can produce the same aerobic and anaerobic benefits as steady-state cardio workouts twice as long. Stripping away the excess and upping the intensity has also been shown to improve cardiovascular endurance and burn fat — not to mention boost the “afterburn effect.”

Do More With Less

Ready to opt for efficiency over exercise machines while saving precious time in the process? Try these simple strategies to skip the false starts and time-sucks, and start connecting with your inner fitness minimalist.

1. Keep it simple. Sometimes all you need is your own bodyweight to get great results. This workout, created by researchers at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Florida takes seven minutes to complete and only uses 12 bodyweight exercises, a wall and a chair. The result: a quick, high-intensity form of circuit training focused on building strength while burning maximum calories. (And who doesn’t love push-ups, wall-sits and high knees?)

2. Up the intensity. When it comes to exercise, we all know something is better than nothing. But when you’re short on time, the trick is thinking about exercise in terms of effort. So while another slow jog around the neighborhood might seem pretty tough, it’s by no means the fastest way to make progress, research suggests. Cram as much intensity into brief workouts as possible by supersetting burpees, mountain climbers or jump squats in between exercises. And if you need an extra push, take the Inferno challenge for a high-internsity program that’s available ’round the clock.

3. Set a timer. When time is short supply, rest periods should be, too (ideally kept to 30 seconds or less). Try this: Set a timer to reflect the length of the workout. Let’s pretend that’s 15 minutes. Now, create a circuit of three to five exercises. Then, start the clock and complete the circuit for as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) in 15 minutes. Of course, never compromise quality over quantity, but by the end of these workouts you should feel sufficiently spent.

4. Watch the clock. Another technique that utilizes the timer is the Tabata protocol. This interval workout only requires four minutes to complete, but can be repeated as part of a 15 or 20-minute routine. Start by selecting an exercise (think burpees, kettlebell swings or thrusters). Then, perform that move for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. Repeat that work-rest routine for eight rounds, clocking in at four minutes flat. On paper it might not seem like much, but these short, intense intervals have been shown to improve athletic capacity, conditioning and fat burning in less time than longer, less intense workouts. Need more guidance? Try these Tabata workouts.

5. Go all out. Jogging is a great way to get moving and stay healthy. But, since we’re aiming for greater results in less time, sprinting is better — specifically HIIT workouts, which alternate between periods of all-out effort and brief recovery. So grab that timer we’ve been using and set it for 60 seconds. Then, sprint, swim, bike, or row all-out for that minute. Take 60 to 90 seconds to rest before repeating at max effort again.

Crossfit Kettlebells and Ropes
Photo: Pond5

Stick with the Essentials

A great workout requires very few bells and whistles (sometimes none at all). But when the time comes to move beyond bodyweight training, mixing in the right tools can help take your training to new heights. Fitness minimalist and trainer Al Kavadlo, CSCS, recommends picking up a few pieces of versatile exercise equipment (check out what he can do with just a pull-up bar), and using movements like pull-ups, push-ups, dips and squats to get stronger before attempting more difficult moves like the muscle-up or pistol squat. Here’s the essential equipment even a fitness minimalist should consider investing in.

TRX. Set up shop in a doorframe and practice the basic moves, like the horizontal row and suspended push-ups, before moving on to single-leg exercises and explosive moves that require more strength and balance. This type of Total Body Resistance Exercise (TRX, get it?) is a form of suspension training that targets multiple muscle groups at once, limiting the length of workouts and the need for additional equipment.

Jump Rope. The perfect tool for warming up or working cardio into bodyweight routines, the jump rope is a fitness minimalist’s dream. Try fast-paced skips, single leg jumps, and double-unders to improve conditioning and coordination.

Kettlebells. This versatile training tool is the total package. Do cardio and strength train simultaneously while engaging every major body part. Now that’s efficiency at its finest!

Sandbags or SandBells. Make a DIY sandbag or spend a few bucks on a Hyperwear Sandbell and you’ll never have to worry about being bored with a workout, or going to the gym again. This versatile training tool allows for more creative and functional total-body workouts when the usual tools start feeling stale.

Skip the Time Sucks

So far we’ve managed to pack more work into less time. But before we can become true fitness minimalists, it’s important to steer clear of the time sucks that could derail our best efforts. As fitness authority Alwyn Cosgrove puts it, some equipment is a “nice to have, not a need to have.” Cosgrove goes on to state that, “your gains have nothing to do with what equipment you have access to, but everything to do with the work you put in.” If your current routine isn’t delivering results, take a closer look at how you’re using the following.

Exercise machines. Navigating a maze of machines, waiting in line, and wiping them down after each use takes a whole lot of time — time that could be better spent on a more effective workout routine. Plus, some machines like the leg extension and Smith machine might be doing harm than good. Take a page from Cosgrove’s playbook by sticking to workouts that use less equipment but are, “simple, time efficient and brutally effective.”

Cardio equipment. It’s nice to watch television while gliding effortlessly forward and backward on an elliptical, but it’s not effective, efficient and it’s certainly not necessary. Go for a trail run or bike ride instead.

Exercise balls. Sure, the guy balancing on the BOSU ball looks fancy, but research has shown that training on an unstable surface yields few benefits. Plus, the women performing chest press or shoulder press on the Swiss ball could be spending her time more wisely as well. In one study, the chest press and shoulder press were most effective when executed on a stable surface. Sometimes keeping things simple pays off.

No More Excuses

No time, no money, and no gym membership are no longer a reason not to exercise. Become a fitness minimalist and eliminate the excuses along with the excess. By upping the intensity of workouts and using the right equipment, if any, it’s possible to workout anywhere, anytime — even when you’re short on time.

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